THEATER SOUND DESIGN — MORE FROM THE PIT
I would like to respond to Bill Koggenhop's letter published in theOctober 2000 issue ("Or, We Could Just Forget the Whole Thing"). I aman arranger/orchestrator, and I have worked with sound designerJonathan Deans on five musicals, including Fosse (for which I wasawarded a Tony award and Jonathan should have been) and Seussical,which is about to begin previews on Broadway. In fact, I helped createthe sound design concept for Seussical that Jonathan wrote about in hisarticle and to which Mr. Koggenhop takes exception.
I believe Mr. Koggenhop, and those who share his point of view, arelaboring under a false assumption, based on a romantic notion of whatlive theater is and is supposed to be. These folks believe that a livemusical theater experience should, by definition, include "acoustic"rather than "canned" music, possibly because they assume the naturalsound emanating from an orchestra pit is preferable to amplified sound.I hate to burst anyone's bubble, but, for the most part, the acousticsound emanating from an orchestra pit is terrible; it gives composersand arrangers agita and designers nightmares. In fact, Broadway sounddesigners (for musicals, anyway) spend the majority of their timetrying to overcome the sound coming from the orchestra pit and replaceit with something better. Unfortunately for them, the audience for amusical prefers to listen at a more moderate volume level than say theaudience for an Earth, Wind & Fire concert, making it difficult forthe mixer to push the amplified sound to a level where it overtakes theacoustic sound. The result is that the acoustic sound that Mr.Koggenhop holds so dear often ends up getting in its own way, resultingin a less-than-wonderful aural experience for the listener.
On our last show, The Music Man (currently running on Broadway),Jonathan and I took an acoustic approach to the sound of the orchestra,in that we worked hard to simulate the sound that most theatergoerswould identify as a "live" orchestra sound. Make no mistake, though:The sound of the orchestra in The Music Man is amplified. Why? Becausedespite the fact that I took great pains to orchestrate the show sothat it would work acoustically, the live sound of the orchestra in thepit was simply not acceptable, given the high standards that today'saudiences expect in live concert sound. To call amplified music"canned" is an insult to the craft of live sound design and the art oflive sound mixing. The audience sophistication to which Jonathan refersto is, in fact, the result of audiences' exposure to high-quality sounddesign. Advances in technology and mixing skill now afford designersthe opportunity to meet the general public's demand for the same typeof definition and sonic brilliance in live sound as they are used to inrecorded sound.
On Seussical, rather than forcing ourselves to overcome the liveorchestra sound (as we had in the past), we decided to take the"radical" step of isolating the louder instruments (the brass andsaxes) in order to better control their presence in the mix. (This isactually not a new idea; the notion of isolating instruments in theorchestra pit goes back to Phil Ramone's design for Promises Promisesmore than 30 years ago.) We decided to keep the strings in the pit sothat we would have some live sound to work with (and so that parentsbringing their children to the edge of the orchestra pit would havesomething identifiable at which to point). Also located in the "live"pit are the guitars, bass and keyboards (no amps - everyone is wearingheadphones, listening to a custom mix), the drums (v-drums with "real"cymbals) and the percussion (behind gobos, but visible). The six windsand brass are in another room, watching the conductor on a videomonitor (and being observed by him as well).
I include these details only to make the point that the audience'sexperience at Seussical is as "live" as a symphony orchestra concert:The orchestra, singers and audience interact in real time, the temposvary from night to night, and the magic of live theater still occurs.The only difference is that we choose to sculpt the soundscape for ouraudience with the judicious use of technology, rather than leave it tothe fates. I suppose Mr. Koggenhop would be justified in objecting tothis practice if we did it tastelessly; however, our goal is to enhancethe experience for the listener, not diminish it. I'd like to think wesucceeded.
THEATER SURROUND SOUND
I have been a sound engineer and designer for about 12 years. I havebeen reading Mix for about five years. I have designed for both bandsand theater. I find it curious that in the world we live, in the"surround sound" world, your attention is not on theater. I have beendesigning shows that have included at least 16 channels of full-rangeand at least four LFE channels. You call home theater surround sound?Shame on you! We in the theater have been doing more with lesstechnology to immerse our audiences. Plus, we do it live every night!Do we hear about this? Maybe once a year in your magazine. Do not getme wrong. I do like your magazine, and I take your articles and reviewsseriously. However, there is another world that exists beyond bands,television and movies that I believe deserves recognition.
Christopher St. Hilaire
Oops! In my October article, "Adventures in Frequency-ConsciousCompression," I wrote that a compressor's release time "is usually setfor no faster than 1/10 ms to avoid distorting the waveform" whende-booming electric bass guitar. What I meant to say was 1/10 second,not millisecond. My brain's attack time was set to slow when I wrotethat.